I had a very weird college experience.
My memories aren’t of frat parties, of slugging down drinks in games of quarters or beer pong, of losing my voice cheering at big football games, and of hearing how evil Western civilization is in the classroom.
Instead, when I think of my four years at Thomas Aquinas College, I think of drawing Euclidean propositions on a chalkboard, of lively debates about Aristotle’s claims about ethics, of earnest discussions about things as obscure as the nature of being.
I remember how my heels clacked against the marble floor of the campus church, and seeing the California hills rising above the small campus. I recall nights in the women’s dorm when we’d pray the line from the Psalms that “peace be within thy walls” and weekends where, clinking beers in those hills ringing campus, we’d talk about everything from the campus gossip to philosophy.
My liberal arts college, as you might have guessed by now, was certainly religious. Thomas Aquinas College, located about an hour’s drive north of Los Angeles in Santa Paula, California, is a Catholic institution and as “out” as you can get about its faith affiliation. There are crucifixes everywhere, a huge church that dominates the small campus, prayers that begin every class.
And now my college, along with other religious colleges, is under attack from California state legislators.
“It’s a direct assault on our First Amendment rights of our free exercise of religion,” says John Quincy Masteller, general counsel for Thomas Aquinas College, of the California legislation known as SB 1146.
What SB 1146 Would Do
The California state Senate already has passed SB 1146, and the state Assembly, which will return from recess Aug. 1, is likely to vote on it in the not-distant future.
The current version of the bill, if passed and signed into law by Democrat Gov. Jerry Brown, could significantly affect religious colleges’ financial status if they refused to change their current practices on issues such as marriage and gender identity. As many as 42 higher education institutions in the Golden State could be affected, according to Biola University.
“It’s about making the statement that schools that adhere to the traditional understanding of marriage and sexuality are wrong, are behaving immorally, and need to be punished,” said Greg Baylor, a senior counsel with the religious liberty group Alliance Defending Freedom, speaking at an event hosted by The Heritage Foundation last week. “The state can’t be tainted by an association with these schools.”
According to Alliance Defending Freedom, SB 1146 has three provisions that could particularly affect religious colleges:
1) requires schools to make single-sex facilities available to students based on gender identity,
2) obligates schools providing married housing to make married housing available to same-sex couples, and
3) fails to protect a school’s practice of considering religion in admissions or hiring.
In other words, if a student born male decided to identify as female, perhaps without even changing his birth certificate or seeking any kind of hormonal or surgical medical assistance, his religious college could be forced to allow that student to live in the female housing—or face financial consequences.
College administrators could also face problems if they wanted to hire people who shared their beliefs or, believing that marriage could only exist between a man and a woman, say that only male-female married couples could have access to housing for married students.
These are not small issues. The Catholic beliefs of Thomas Aquinas College affect what is taught and how. All of my professors were Catholics, which meant their teaching in class very much included an awareness of and sometimes a discussion of a specific perspective.
While not all of the students were Catholic (and those with different religious viewpoints were treated with respect), it was clear that if you didn’t want your education informed by Catholicism at all, this was the wrong college to go to.
It was also clear that religion was not limited to the classroom. The Catholic faith affected everyday life, the kind of rules and practices the college had. For example, all housing at my college was entirely single-sex, usually two women or two men sharing a room together. Men were allowed in the women’s dorms only in select hours to do basic maintenance, and vice versa. (Since I never worked on maintenance, I never set foot in any of the men’s dorms during my entire four years.)
SB 1146 would also require colleges to disclose it openly if they requested an exemption on religious grounds from the federal government on implementing Title IX, the law that is supposed to ban discrimination on basis of sex but has been twisted to include discrimination on basis of gender identity. None of the religious colleges, to my knowledge, is objecting to that disclosure.
“There are religious institutions in California—Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic, all accredited—every one of whom, in accord with all the major religions in the world, believe that gender matters, that maleness and femaleness is not arbitrary, that it’s not interchangeable, that it’s not inconsequential,” John Jackson, president of William Jessup University, said at the same Heritage event where Baylor spoke.
There are California institutions, Jackson added, that believe “marriage matters.”
“I think, quite frankly, for some in California, that’s an embarrassment. And SB 1146 is an attempt to throttle, to silence, to disempower, to marginalize those who hold to those views.”
Colleges Could Face Bleak Financial Future
If SB 1146 passes and religious colleges refuse to change, they face a much harsher financial future.
The likely outcome is that their students who are eligible no longer could receive the significant tuition assistance California offers students who attend private colleges and fulfill certain requirements, including having a 3.0 GPA and a family income below certain levels.
That’s because religious colleges would be unable to tell California they were following certain policies. California requires colleges whose students receive the tuition assistance, called CalGrants, to certify compliance with specific policies.
Already, there is concern about the impact this would have on students. A statement signed by Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and others, warned that the bill could hurt Hispanic students in particular:
Members of the Hispanic community would be disproportionately affected by SB 1146 given our community’s longtime commitment toward faith-based education.
This bill would not only diminish religious liberty in California higher education; it would discriminate against minority communities in California.
The loss of CalGrants is no small threat for religious colleges. About 10 percent of Thomas Aquinas College’s 360 students receive the tuition assistance, which can go up to around $9,000 per year. Losing that would mean a 10 percent cut to the college’s financial aid budget.
William Jessup University, a Christian college of about 1,000 undergraduate students with two locations in Northern California, has about 30 percent of its students receiving CalGrants, adding up to about $2 million of the school’s budget.
“We will be faithful to our biblical and religious convictions no matter what the economic consequences,” Jessup’s Jackson said. “However, the fundamental reality is that might mean a reduction in services, it might mean a reduction in programs.”
Thomas Aquinas College is similarly adamant about not changing even if SB 1146 is passed: “The college has always taken a position that we’re not going to jeopardize our Catholic character because of any public funding of any kind,” Masteller said.
I wasn’t eligible for a CalGrant when I went to college. But as a native Californian who grew up in the now-hip Silicon Valley area, I’m stunned that Californians who do meet the eligibility requirements for a CalGrant could now face a choice between attending a college that adheres to their value system and losing thousands of dollars, or going to a secular or more progressive religious college and getting a significant financial boost.
Sure, I knew that being a conservative Catholic didn’t make me part of the mainstream in California, particularly in my family’s San Francisco-dominated liberal enclave. (Our neighbors used to wonder why our family always went to church on Sunday.) But the attitude was largely live and let live. We were the weird churchgoers, that was all.
Now it feels like my state—which I do still think of as my state, despite the seven years that have passed since I lived there—is turning on religious people, changing from an attitude of live and let live to demanding that people bow to the current conventional wisdom on certain values or be punished.
A Life of Faith Isn’t Limited to Within Church Walls
Here’s the crucial point that California state legislators don’t seem to get (or perhaps accept): Religious beliefs affect more than what someone does on Sunday mornings in a place of worship.
“You’re welcome to come, as long as you know we expect you to abide by this moral code, because we’re Catholics,” Masteller said, describing Thomas Aquinas College’s approach to prospective students.
At Thomas Aquinas College, the code of behavior is scarcely limited to matters that would affect LGBT students. In fact, in 1997 the college was sued by a female student who had been expelled, following a disagreement with college officials related to her desire to continue spending nights at her male fiancé’s house, according to a Los Angeles Times report.
A host of other rules—many of which admittedly I would not make rules if I ran a Catholic college myself—existed in part to ensure the college retains its Catholic character, according to my understanding when I was there as a student.
The rules including requiring students to follow a dress code intended in part to promote modesty; banning drinking without permission on campus; limiting internet use (making it harder to watch porn); and enforcing a strict curfew every night. In other words, it’s a fairly equal opportunity, superstrict atmosphere at my alma mater, hardly targeting any particular group.
And it’s an atmosphere that is truly religious. Yes, there were the obvious signs—the big church, the prayers said out loud—but there was also a real earnestness among many students to take seriously what they felt was a call to holiness. Some of my fellow students attended daily Mass. An actual debate among students, just to give you a sense of the spirit of the college, was whether it was OK to study non-theological subjects, like math or literature, in the church, or whether you should be in the church only if you were actually praying.
While we were far from a perfect group of young adults, there was certainly a genuine amount of trying among the students. We talked about what virtue was, and, amid all the usual pettiness and drama of any community’s life, there were plenty of good-faith efforts to be kind, to be charitable, to be understanding.
“I’m not saying people don’t make mistakes, and I’m not saying that there are not challenges; we certainly are fallible people,” Jessup’s Jackson said. “But I want to tell you that the religious institutions in California treat people with dignity and respect because it’s part of our religious conviction.”
Forcing Religious Colleges to Change
In a video released at the end of June, Biola University President Barry H. Corey strikes similar themes, saying the college in Southern California has “zero tolerance for bullying” and strives to be one of the “safe places that demonstrate the love of Christ to all students.”
“Contrary to the simplistic picture painted by SB 1146, institutions like Biola seek to live in harmony with and love the LGBT community,” Corey said in the video. “We want to respect this community’s rights and protect them from discrimination and hate. Not because of the law, but because of the love and grace of Jesus Christ.”
“We are not asking the LGBT community to change who they are,” he added. “We are simply asking that they do not force us to change who we are either.”
But if SB 1146 becomes law, religious colleges will be forced either to change or tell their students they do not have access to the same funds as their peers in California, just because they want to attend a religious college.
As I’ve acknowledged, my college experience was unusual.
Most teens don’t hear of a college where they can read and discuss Einstein and de Tocqueville, Jane Austen and Kant, and think: Sign me up.
Most teens aren’t interested in how many daily Masses a college offers (for those wondering: three, sometimes four) and being able to have classroom discussions where you can think about the connection between Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s understanding of the relationship of beauty and truth and Thomas Aquinas’s take on it.
But there are some, like me, who are interested in such a college experience.
And California shouldn’t punish them and force them to cough up as much as an additional $36,000 to attend college, just because they think the best college education is informed by a religious perspective. Because that’s discrimination, too: discrimination against people of faith.
I want to believe that my state isn’t there, that the legislators aren’t serious about singling out people of faith for discrimination like this.
But I don’t know.
In our conversation, Masteller was blunt about what he sees as the objectives of SB 1146’s proponents.
“They want to wipe religion out of the public square.”